By Michael Harrold
Everything went according to plan for Felix Magath. True, his FC Bayern München side had been unable to score the away goal against Arsenal FC that would have put the second leg of their UEFA Champions League first knockout round tie beyond doubt, but ultimately it had not been necessary - Bayern's defence had done its job protecting a 3-1 first-leg lead.
Whereas Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Werder Bremen had crumbled, conceding 16 goals between them, Bayern held firm and Germany's sole remaining standard bearers strolled into the last eight confident of reaching the semi-finals for the first time since winning the competition in 2001. The contrast with Bayern's Bundesliga counterparts is striking. How badly did Leverkusen miss Lucio, the rock in the Bayern defence? Might Magath's tactical nous have made a difference to Bremen, last season's German champions?
That pair's arrival at the Olympiastadion last summer also paid dividends for Argentinian midfielder Martin Demichelis, whose role in freezing out Dennis Bergkamp at Highbury proved decisive in ending Arsenal's hopes of recovery. Demichelis joined Bayern from CA River Plate in 2003 as a central defender, but he struggled to adapt to the Bundesliga in his first season. Expectations in Munich were high, but so too was the pressure, an uneasy mix for a player looking to find his feet in a new culture on a different continent.
Demichelis's future looked in doubt when Lucio was bought to fill the central defensive role he had failed to make his own. But Magath had other ideas. Demichelis was pushed into the holding midfield role and since breaking into the first eleven at the end of last year, Bayern have not looked back. Prior to their 1-0 defeat by FC Schalke 04 nine days ago, Bayern had conceded just twice in eight matches this year with Demichelis in the side.
Demichelis provides the perfect defensive shield, but also the ideal foil for Michael Ballack. At Highbury, Demichelis was superb, squeezing the space Bergkamp usually thrives on in front of the defence and allowing Ballack to push forward. Ballack is relishing the new partnership. "I was playing more defensively, it was a new position for me, but during my injury Demichelis came back to this defensive position, so I could play more in front of goal," he said. "This is important and this situation is better for me."
Better for Bayern too. Suddenly the €4.5m they paid for Demichelis looks money well spent. Where once he was criticised for a perceived lack of pace, the 24-year-old is now praised for his touch and vision. His classically South American skills sit well alongside three typically Germanic qualities - strength, determination and discipline.
With the prolific Roy Makaay up front, Ballack pulling the strings in midfield, Lucio and Kovac marshalling the defence and the indomitable Oliver Kahn in goal, the spine of this Bayern side is as strong as any left in the competition. To that mix Magath has added Demichelis, and according to Kahn, this team is now ready to make its mark.
"You have to go a long way back to find a better Bayern team than we saw in the first half [against Arsenal], in terms of pace and precision," Kahn said. "We couldn't quite keep it up in the second half, but with this squad and the current team spirit we could go all the way." That really would be a way to make a certain Argentinian feel at home in Germany.
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